Solid and patient throughout, Les Bleus came through a potentially tricky quarter-final against a well-drilled Japanese side. While the 3-2 scoreline may suggest a close-run thing, the Asian outfit scored both their goals in the very last minute, thereby injecting a modicum of suspense into an encounter that only ever looked like having one winner. Ready and determined to defend their world crown, France march on to Saturday's semi-final, where they will face the winners of this afternoon's tangel between Argentina and Uruguay.
''That last minute was really tricky for us," admitted French coach Eric Cantona after the game. "We still won on this occasion, but we can't rely on luck every time."'
The early exchanges served to confirm that this would be a hard-fought game. In his first joust with Shingo Terukina, Didier Samoun saw his point-blank shot repelled by the Japanese keeper, who then thwarted Jeremy Basquaise in similar style a few minutes later.
Against a strong Japan side, the French knew they were going to have to remain patient. Courtesy of their rock-solid defence, Les Bleus dominated the first third but were unable to convert their superiority into goals.
A stroke of genius was needed to break the deadlock, and it was duly provided when Jair Cardoso took a throw-in and Samoun darted in at the near post to send a header into the roof of the Japanese net (1:0). Although they tried to hit back swiftly, the East Asians were unable to find any space in which to shoot, as the imperious French rearguard tightened its grip.
But when Takashi Arakaki struck the left upright of Jean-Marie Aubry's goal two minutes into the third period, it seemed to re-energise his side. In the minutes that followed, Japanese attempts on goal became more numerous, though no more fruitful, while France remained as pragmatic as ever. And although Cantona's charges ended up giving themselves a fright by conceding two goals in the final minute, the gulf in class between the two teams meant that the outcome was never in doubt.
''While we put up a good fight, we didn't manage to take control of the game in the third period," declared a disappointed Hiroyuki Torikai after the match. The difference between the sides was efficiency. They converted every chance they created.''
Referees: Carlos Frazao (POR), Francisco Sarmiento (ESP), Faisal Sallam (UAE)